A test of canine olfactory capacity: Comparing various dog breeds and wolves in a natural detection task

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Abstract

Many dog breeds are bred specifically for increased performance in scent-based tasks. Whether dogs bred for this purpose have higher olfactory capacities than other dogs, or even wolves with whom they share a common ancestor, has not yet been studied. Indeed, there is no standard test for assessing canine olfactory ability. This study aimed to create a simple procedure that requires no pre-training and to use it to measure differences in olfactory capacity across four groups of canines: (1) dog breeds that have been selected for their scenting ability; (2) dog breeds that have been bred for other purposes; (3) dog breeds with exaggerated short-nosed features; and (4) hand-reared grey wolves. The procedure involved baiting a container with raw turkey meat and placing it under one of four identical ceramic pots. Subjects were led along the row of pots and were tasked with determining by olfaction alone which of them contained the bait. There were five levels of increasing difficulty determined by the number of holes on the container's lid. A subsample of both dogs and wolves was retested to assess reliability. The results showed that breeds selected for scent work were better than both short-nosed and non-scent breeds. In the most difficult level, wolves and scenting breeds performed better than chance, while non-scenting and short-nosed breeds did not. In the retested samples wolves improved their success; however, dogs showed no change in their performances indicating that a single test may be reliable enough to assess their capacity. Overall, we revealed measurable differences between dog breeds in their olfactory abilities and suggest that the Natural Detection Task is a good foundation for developing an efficient way of quantifying them.

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Polgár, Z., Kinnunen, M., Újváry, D., Miklósi, Á., & Gácsi, M. (2016). A test of canine olfactory capacity: Comparing various dog breeds and wolves in a natural detection task. PLoS ONE, 11(5). https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0154087

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